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An Age of Kings: ‘uneasy lies the head’

Continued from the second paragraph is my 2009 journey through the fifteen-part BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s History plays, An Age of Kings. I originally wrote these eight posts, of which this is the third, for the Illuminations blog (the previous two are here and here) — and today’s first appeared here on 30 July 2009. The series is available on DVD as a Region 1 box set in the United States, but frustratingly there has been no release in the United Kingdom.

Two previous posts began our journey through this epic BBC production recently released on DVD. Eight plays, fifteen episodes — of which today we’re concerned with numbers five and six: Henry IV Part Two. The king (Tom Fleming) is dying and then dead. Long live the king (Robert Hardy). All that, plus making merry in a tavern, army recruiting in an orchard and the rejection of Falstaff (Frank Pettingell) in a London street. And while the final scenes are both moving and have a true air of majesty, there’s quite a bit to work your way through first in both text and television adaptation.

Much of the first half of the play, here and in the one or two other productions that I’ve seen, comes across as just a bit tedious. Eastcheap, Doll Tearsheet and lots more Falstaff just don’t play well these days (at least for me). The contemporary reviewer in The Times got it more or less right.

When we see Henry IV in the theatre it is likely, whatever we know of the other history plays, that the Falstaff scenes will be the centre of interest, and the properly historical parts little more than a background to them.

When the plays are seen in a chronological sequence, however, with the audience fresh from Richard II and already conscious of Henry V looming ahead, it is the historical scenes which provide the continuity and emerge to take the forefront of our attention, leaving the Falstaff episodes looking dangerously like so many tiresome interruptions. (Anon., ‘Conflict in An Age of Kings’, The Times, 24 June 1960, p. 4)

Forty-nine years on from the first run in 1960, that’s just about the way it still appears. Even though Prince Henry doesn’t appear until 33 minutes into the play, the star performance is definitely that contributed by Robert Hardy. His Hal, Harry and then king grows and develops in a remarkable way, and his deathbed exchanges with his father, when he has taken away the crown before it was appropriate to do so, are compelling. Tom Fleming then excels himself as he dies, his death rattle underlined by an effective crash zoom into his face and an accompanying minimal score of a single-note progression.

The newly crowned Henry V, having taken up the trappings and the cares of kingship, publicly spurning his former drinking companion Falstaff is one of the great scenes. Robert Hardy as the king handles it better than Frank Pettingell but I can’t say that I was sorry to see the merrie band consigned to gaol. What happens then is interesting. John of Lancaster (Julian Glover) and the Lord Chief Justice (a consistently impressive Geoffrey Bayldon) reflect on the king’s plans to invade France, Sir Arthur Bliss’s title music swells and the credits roll.

So far, so expected, but under the credits we see the cast break out of their roles, begin to congratulate each other and start to take off their robes. Wigs are removed and make-up is rubbed off. The camera focusses in on a single figure who meticulously cleans his face in close-up. The fourth wall is well and truly broken, and the effect is reinforced as the credits come to a close and the figure, still attired in costume but definitely ‘out’ of the play, stands and speaks directly into the camera.

This is Shakespeare’s Epilogue, played by William Squire, who addresses the audience with a reassurance that the story of Falstaff will be continued (it won’t, of course, apart from a glancing reference in Henry V). In the theatre, but not here, he also says that ‘Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man’, as a way of deflecting criticism that the play was disrespectful to the memory of the noted Lollard leader. Epilogue’s words are heavily cut but nonetheless the way this is played is a notable departure from the style of the previous plays. I’m intrigued now to see how the team handles the Prologue who opens Henry V.

The rolling credits of archive recordings like this (which you can actually read, in contrast to today’s) invariably have their own nerdy pleasures. Among the listed extras of this episode is one Tony Garnett — the great producer of the next generation of television drama, the man behind so many seminal single plays, as well as series like Law and Order (1978), Between the Lines (1992) and This Life (1996-97). Recently, too, he has been the scourge of current BBC drama commissioning policy with his measured critiques published online here and here. Also in there is Glyn Worsnip, who was later a presenter on That’s Life and Nationwide.

A rather more substantial interest of the production is how it was received by audiences back at the start of the 1960s. I don’t know if there’s much (any?) research or analysis of the reaction in Britain — although I intend to dig around in the coming weeks to try to find out — but I have been struck by a couple of articles reflecting on its reception in 1961 in the States. There are also the short but evocative testimonials on Amazon. com with viewers’ memories of the impact it made.

Reviewing the DVD set in The New York Times, J. Hoberman (who incidentally remains one of the very best film critics around) sketches the historical moment of its first Stateside showings.

An Age of Kings appeared just past the golden age of TV drama. But its initial United States presentation coincided almost exactly with John F. Kennedy’s political honeymoon. The first episode of Richard II was broadcast 10 days prior to Kennedy’s inauguration [this is January 1961]; the last installment of Richard III concluded less than a week before the new administration suffered its first setback at the Bay of Pigs. Shakespeare’s epic chronicle of conspiracy and betrayal, power plays and blind ambition anticipated the political thrillers (Advise and Consent, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May) that were among Hollywood’s contributions to Camelot culture. (‘This Earth, this England, this series’, 25 March 2009, accessed 24 June 2011)

Hoberman also considers the specifically television context — and the impact of An Age of Kings here.

The series also stimulated the growth of public television. Scarcely had An Age of Kings concluded than Newton Minnow, chairman of the Federal Communications commission, delivered his famous excoriation of broadcast television as a ‘vast wasteland.’ The following season, thanks to Humble Oil and National Educational Television [NET], the fledgling noncommercial program service, An Age of Kings was shown in an additional 50 outlets, and the BBC was presented with a Peabody Award.

In the recent Cambridge University Press volume Shakespeare Survey 61: Shakespeare, Sound and Screen that I’ve previously recommended borrowing from a library, Patricia Lennox has a terrific essay, ‘An Age of Kings and the “Normal American”‘ that explores the television context of the US screenings in much greater detail (as well as looking at its production in the UK). This really is an essential resource if you want properly to understand An Age of Kings. As she characterises the article

… it looks closely at NET’s financially successful marketing of Kings as a pedagogical tool where an important componetn was the addition of a wraparound commentary by the University of California professor Frank Baxter who introduced each episode with a genial explanation of Shakespeare for the viewer he refers to as ‘the Normal American’.

His is an intriguing example of mid twentieth century Shakespeare teaching that presents the text as neither high brow or low brow, but instead as the work of America’s literary ancestor. Baxter’s ‘normal American’ also represented the audience the newly formed NET needed to attract if its role in educational television was to succeed.

I don’t have the time (nor you, I suspect, the patience) to go into further detail here, but I’ll return to Ms Lennox’s essay in future posts. To finish, one more insightful quote from Hoberman (although Henry IV Part Two isn’t necessarily the play that I’d feel most confident ascribing the following to).

Viewed today An Age of Kings bears little resemblance to public television as we know it. There’s nothing genteel about Mr. Dews’s production; there are no elegant drawing rooms or scenic locations. The series’s success may have made television safe for Masterpiece Theater, but its true successors are Mad Men and The Wire, serial dramas that strain the confines of the small screen with their large characters, compelling situations and narrative density, if not the power of Shakespearean English.

All images are framegrabs from the BBC Warner DVD release of An Age of Kings; © BBC.



One thought on “An Age of Kings: ‘uneasy lies the head’

  1. I agree about Robert Hardy’s performance as Prince Hal, and then Henry V.

    It is mesmeric, focused, INTEGRATED. You don’t feel you are meeting different people in each phase of the fellow’s life.

    Hardy’s realisation of the character is outstanding – I suspect as both an artistic achievement in his whole career and over the course of the many Hals which stage and screen have evinced.

    Posted by Peter Scott | 10 August 2014, 9:46 am

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